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For many real estate buyers, a land purchase fulfills just one piece of what could be a lifelong ambition to adopt a rural lifestyle. After closing on that ideal parcel, a new landowner might contemplate other trappings of country life, including the purchase of a saddle horse.
There are few potential transactions as fraught with risk as buying a horse. How can one be sure a horse is suitable for a particular use? Or that a horse is healthy and sound? Or properly trained? Or even safe to handle and ride? For a neophyte, finding a suitable mount can be overwhelming. But even an inexperienced horseman can successfully navigate the process with some simple guidelines.
Ever since the creation of the concept of buying and selling animals, horse traders have had a well-deserved reputation for stretching the truth about a given horse’s background, health and potential. And, any veteran breeder, trainer or trader can sniff out an inexperienced horseman in the first moments of an initial conversation. Before a first-time horse buyer even contemplates looking at a horse, he or she should connect with a more experienced horseman who can help identify trustworthy sellers and evaluate prospects.
Selective breeding has largely made the “all-around” horse an endangered species. A buyer planning to use the same mount for trail riding, team roping, hunting and barrel racing is working with unrealistic expectations. A more viable picture: pick a discipline and narrow your search to horses suited to that activity; traits to consider will include bloodlines, conformation (body type), temperament, and a horse’s past experiences and training. A buyer intending on pursuing more than one horseback discipline ought to consider purchasing more than one horse.
Often, first-time horse buyers entertain fantasies about acquiring young horses and training those colts themselves; they’re seeking a “full” experience. The reality is that starting a colt under saddle is a complicated, physically demanding, time-consuming process that carries the constant risk of serious physical injury to human and horse alike. Bottom line: it’s best left to more experienced riders. Instead, first-time horse owners should aspire to own a seasoned animal – one that’s at least several years old and that’s “been around the block,” in use on a ranch or in competition and ready for a slower, easier life.
Another common fantasy among would-be horse owners: adopting a wild horse. In spite of any connections (however dubious) to the “untamed spirit of the West,” mustangs, with their feral nature, come with even more risks than domesticated colts. It takes a gifted equestrian to transform a wild horse into a safe, dependable saddle horse.
There are some horse auctions that carefully screen consignments and build reputations based on the quality of the stock put in front of the public. Still, it takes an experienced horseman to “read” horses on offer at such events. And, a generic local livestock auction will have much lower standards for stock and fewer buyer protections, and will be unlikely to draw horses suited for first-time owners.
Due to their aggressive natures, stallions are entirely unsuitable for first-time horse owners – full stop. Mares have their advocates, and in some cases can be great saddle horses, but their heat cycles can lead to unpredictability – a dangerous trait. Geldings, by contrast, are generally more even-tempered and consistent; as a rule of thumb, quiet, lazy geldings tend to make the safest, most dependable saddle horses.
Horse-rescue operations used to be depositories for the strictly unwanted and unrideable. In the last decade, though, an equine population explosion filled rescue stables to capacity. Now, it isn’t uncommon to find great riding horses – likely surrendered by former owners in economic distress – mixed in among less appealing candidates. As added benefits, the cost of acquiring a rescue horse can be next to nothing, and doing so frees up space for another animal.
Being registered with a breed association – the American Quarter Horse Association, for example – qualifies a horse to compete in registry-approved events. Even if an owner has no interest in such events, though, registration has other benefits: a registered horse’s pedigree can be researched easily, as can past performance records. And, registered horses hold greater monetary value vs. unregistered, or “grade,” horses.
Once a buyer has found a horse, he or she should insist on a pre-purchase vet check. The buyer’s vet will give the horse a thorough once-over and check for any lameness issues.
The last 25 years brought on widespread interest in horsemanship education, with a seemingly endless list of “clinicians,” traveling educators who tour the country offering hands-on instruction for riders at all levels. There’s no real certification process for such educators, so new riders less familiar with the equestrian culture should again plan on tapping into insight from more experienced horsemen; this will help separate the true hands among those clinicians from the charlatans. The value of ongoing education for a rider can’t be overstated. In fact, a prospective buyer might want to spectate at a few horsemanship clinics before beginning the process of searching for a horse; insight gained might help add focus to the horse-buying effort.